It's difficult to keep a New Year's resolution to spend less when you live in what is arguably the nation's most expensive city. But hardship is no excuse for surrendering in the war to save money and achieve financial goals. Even the poorest New Yorkers can make progress in paying down debt, amassing a six-month emergency fund, and saving for education, a home or retirement. Here, four experts share a diverse array of savings tips for people at different economic levels.
Reyes Irizarry, project director for the Community Service Society's Financial Coaching Corps:
Get a handle on your money leaks by relentlessly documenting every single cent you spend for a month. "The most obvious is eating out and buying clothes, but some people give money to charities when they don't have any money for themselves," said Reyes. Then, prepare a budget that incorporates your cutbacks as well as your savings goals -- be they living debt free, or amassing an emergency fund. Having an account at a bank or credit union will help give you discipline and structure, but be sure to "never use more than 30% of your credit at any one time," (i.e. charging more than 30% of what your credit card permits) as doing so lowers your credit score.
Also, don't hesitate to seek help from cssny.org or other anti-poverty organizations if you have trouble budgeting on your own.
Tawra Kellam, founder of www.livingonadime.com:
Before spending a single cent, Kellam who lives with her husband and five children on an annual income of less than $60,000, asks herself a series of questions: Do I need it? Do I already have something I can use instead? Can I get it for free somewhere else (i.e. borrowing books, CDs and movies from a library, asking a neighbor for the loan of a tool, or seeking a donation on Freecycle.org)? If I have to have it, is there any way I can get it cheaper? Kellam, who buys her eyeglasses on line, sewed a new bathmat out of an old towel, barters for home repairs and shops thrift stores for all clothing waits at least 24 hours before making any purchase. Searching for items on eBay or Craigslist and Googling for better prices and deals, always yields a way to get something less expensively. She also thinks out of the box when it comes to her family: "My kids pay for their own cellphones and computers," and know they will pay for their own educations.
As a result of having to earn what they want, they have become industrious, financially savvy, and learned how to hustle, Kellam said. Her 17-year-old son disliked bussing tables for pocket money "so started his own computer parts business on eBay and (grossed) $20,000 last month."
Kellam cooks at home, preparing carefully planned meals and stretching one roast into multiple meals. Using up what is on hand instead of reflexively running to the store for missing ingredients saves unplanned food and transportation expenses. She also buys milk on sale, freezing extra in plastic containers, leaving a couple inches in the top to allow for expansion in the freezer. (After thawing, just shake it up and it's fine -- honest!)
Her relentless scrimping meant the family did not have to go into debt when they crashed two cars this year and faced $10,000 worth of unexpected medical bills: "We paid cash," for the "new" (i.e. used) cars.
Helaine Olen, author of "Pound-foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry":
Olen believes that tips like giving up gourmet coffees are insulting and ridiculous in an age when the paychecks of working and middle class people are systematically siphoned off to pay exorbitant housing costs and health care bills. Money can indeed be saved by never carrying (and only rarely using) one's credit or debit card, but what is most needed is to fix the structural problems keeping people poor. That solution, she said, is participating fully in our democracy. New Yorkers should lobby their elected officials to support single payer health care, public housing initiatives and higher taxes on "nonresident owners -- there is just an incredible number of people buying second homes who don't even live here," which contributes to the housing squeeze for those that do, she explained.
And another thing: If you are a suffering member of the middle class, it might make sense for you to relocate to a place with a lower cost of living than NYC: "That will get you much further than not having a latte."
People lucky enough to have IRAs and other retirement funds should make sure their accounts are in low-cost "index funds" -- such as those offered by Vanguard -- to avoid high and often unseen "management fees" that silently slurp up their hard-earned savings over time. (NerdWallet.com recently found that 90% of Americans underestimate the fees associated with their 401Ks, and that those with actively managed funds can wind up having 28% less at retirement than if their money went into low-priced, passively managed index funds.)
Katie Bryan, communications director for America Saves, a project of The Consumer Federation of America:
Stay calm, don't get overwhelmed and "start small," said Bryan. "The number one strategy for any kind of saving is automating," so if you're employed, get your employer to automatically deposit one to five percent of your paycheck into a retirement or savings account. Then "auto escalate" the amount by one percent (or, more if you can) each year.
Shopping should not be a form of recreation, so don't make it one: Minimize the time you spend strolling store aisles or perusing retail websites, and develop hobbies and interests such as volunteering that enhance your insides instead of your outside.
"People with the lowest incomes are still spending $80 a month on entertainment: If you can cut that in half, you've got $40 a month," to sock away. Cutting out cable and getting an antenna for the TV, hosting potlucks instead of eating in restaurants and eliminating all impulse shopping are other ways to pare back. Coupons are often a false economy, only saving you money if the item was on your list and in your budget.
Having money saved pays big dividends, because when an emergency arises, you won't have to resort to a high interest credit card or a payday loan, which keeps you mired in debt. For more information on saving and to take the "savings pledge," go to http://americasaves.org